A Journal of Life Pursued

Archive for the ‘Thinkers’ Category

Da Capo

In Books, Creativity, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Writers on March 20, 2013 at 6:00 am

The  neuro-chemical thing has worn off and all is again right with the world. That said, it’s a good time to take a little break, a few days away from the desk. The reading is falling behind, the reservoir is low, and the battery needs a trickle charge. So, today I’m putting up a previous post (from 2010) and am taking a breather for a few days. You must be getting tired of me, anyway, knowing as I do, how tedious I can (so easily) become. See you soon.

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“There is properly no history; only biography” ~ Emerson

My first choice of reading material is often biography. The biography holds everything: entertainment, knowledge, history, story-telling, insight, and possibly even wisdom. As best I can recall, the first biography I ever read was Mark Twain, though now that I think about it, I believe it was his autobiography, the genre-cousin of biography. I was in elementary school and I recall that it took a very long time to complete–I’m a slow reader. It was a big book written for grown-ups. And I wasn’t–grown-up, that is. I remember I had to write a book report and my teacher checked everyday on my progress, the book being thick and me being slow, and the report not coming when due, and the pressure, oh the pressure…

Young's Biography, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography

Young’s Biography, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography

As an adult I am still a slow reader and still a reader who loves biography. So it was that I saved up my pennies and sprang for the first new book (“new”: not a used book, or a library sale book, or a freebie review book) in quite some time: Friedrich Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography by Julian Young. Young is Professor of Philosophy, University of Auckland, and the book is published by Cambridge University Press. I was turned onto it by a glowing review by Francis Fukuyam in the New York Times Book Review.  Fukuyam includes this line:

“Whether we acknowledge it or not, we continue to live within the intellectual shadow cast by Nietzsche. Postmodernism, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, the “free spirit” scorning bourgeois morality, even New Age festivals like Burning Man can all ultimately be traced to him.”

I have always been fascinated by this enigmatic thinker. Here’s how the biography opens:

“Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s feet, shout ‘Da capo!–Once more! Once More! Back to the beginning!–to ‘the whole play and performance’. In perfect health one would ‘crave nothing more fervently’ than the ‘eternal return’ of one’s life throughout infinite time–not the expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful.”

This idea stops me cold.

Sunday Repost: A Call From the Fog

In Technology, Thinkers on March 3, 2013 at 6:00 am

A repost from three years ago:

The Sirens--Who Can Resist Them?

The Sirens–Who Can Resist Them?

We’ve had a couple of days of snow. And more falling–with fog. Maggie and I, as always, walked the Eastern Prom this morning, post-holing our way. There came a call of the fog-horn from the bay, the sound rolling in from the South. I thought perhaps it was Bug Light, but I’m given to understand Bug is only an optical warning. Regardless, it was haunting. The water, the fog, snow, and the warning call.

I find it refreshing that technology hundreds of years old–the harbor bell, the fog horn, the light house–is still used in the age of satellite navigation and GPS. I stood in the snow and listened quietly. It seemed more a beckoning than a warning. Famously, Odysseus was curious as to the call of the Sirens. He had his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast. He wisely ordered his men to leave him there, no matter how much he begged. And beg he did. But that isn’t the fatalism I’m suggesting. This wasn’t a siren’s death call.

It seemed more a beckoning than a warning. (History is filled with such confusion. Philosophy is doubt, said Montaigne.) But that’s not where I’m heading. Two things. Small things. One: Old technology can still work. Perhaps in the long run we will discover it works best. Secondly, more importantly, stand in the snow, stop and listen. You might be beckoned. Or perhaps warned. Either way, you will miss it with ear buds in.

The Examined Life

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers on February 13, 2013 at 6:00 am
The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Okay, fine. It took only two weeks to fall off the theme-day thing. As two tribe members noted, Thursday Theme Day flew in the face of the spontaneity that defines “…the house…” Regardless, in short order it became a chore, self-imposed at that, and there is little reason to accept such discipline.

With that bit of housekeeping completed, let’s talk about the death of Socrates and the examined life. The examined life is a frequent theme  here: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. It occurs to me that perhaps you are not aware of the tradition behind this ancient saying. Please allow me to tell you the story (a bit editorialized, thank you very much.) (And in that spirit, this is a long post. I understand if you aren’t interested in spending the time on it. Frankly, if I were you, I doubt I would spend that much time with me. If that’s the case, I invite you to scroll to the bottom for a brief summary, as well as some reading recommendations.)

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Ruins of the Agora

Ruins of the Agora

Socrates held truth a thing to be pursued, not discovered, an idea that takes it off the mount and puts it in the streets. (Oliver Wendall Holmes, a pragmatist, echoed the notion when he remarked to a friend, “All I mean by truth is the path I have to travel.”) And that is where he spent his time, in the streets, talking to anyone who would listen. Xenophon wrote that he “was always on public view.” He continues, “Socrates used to go to the walkways and gymnasia, to appear in the agora as it filled up, and to be present wherever he would meet with the most people.” * His student, Plato, recorded him referring to himself, fittingly, as a gadfly. (It is important to know that Socrates left no written record. Most of what we know of him was recorded by his student and younger friend, Plato. Plato, by the way, was the teacher of Aristotle, who, in case you are not aware, was the teacher of Alexander the Great, Alex making a cameo here at “…the house…” just a couple of weeks ago.)

He was well known in Athens for years prior to his trial. Aristophanes mentions him in his comedy The Clouds, produced in 423 BC, portraying Socrates as a sophist. There is no historical evidence that Socrates was associated with the sophists, His recorded sayings do not support this account. The sophists had a dicey reputation in Athens at the time. The historian G.B. Kerferd described the sophists of this period as : “…a set of charlatans that appeared in Greece in the fifth century, and earned ample livelihood by imposing on public credulity: professing to teach virtue, they really taught the art of fallacious discourse, and meanwhile propagated immoral practical doctrines.”

The climate at the time was tense. The year was 399 B.C. The city (Athens) guardians were being pressed for reform and the youth were restless. So it came to be that Socrates, a pain in the backside to those holding to the status quo, was arrested on charges of “corruption of youth” and “impiety.” Specifically, the impious acts were: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities.”  (“Could Socrates have been the corrupter of youth after all?” asks Nietzsche. “And did he deserve his hemlock?”)

He was brought to trial. The law in Athens dictated that such cases not exceed a day’s length and the old philosopher knew that he could not make his case in just a day. Instead he began to challenge the jurors.

“Some will say: Yes, Socrates, but you cannot you hold your tongue….Now, I have great difficulty in making you understand my

Socrates on trial.

Socrates on trial.

answer to this. For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet I say what is true….”

In essence, he claimed that the jurors (citizens of Athens selected by lottery) could hardly be expected to be sympathetic, as they had little appreciation for philosophy. His tone, as recorded in Plato’s Apologia, was reprimanding and unapologetic. If Plato and Xenophon are to be believed, Socrates sought not to persuade, but to lecture and provoke.

“And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and in the hour of death men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers, that immediately after my departure punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you. Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give account of your lives But that will not be as you suppose: far otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more inconsiderate with you, and you will be more offended at them. If you think that by killing men you can prevent some one from censuring lives your evil lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honourable; the easiest and the noblest way is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves.”

The law held that the guilty party had to kill himself, hence the hemlock. It was expected, and suggested by his followers, that he would flee.

Socrates takes the hemlock.

Socrates takes the hemlock.

Most hold that he did not flee on moral grounds, that seeing the sentence through to completion was his moral obligation. And so it was, indeed.

* Fittingly, my first trip abroad, over thirty years ago, found me in Athens. Surprisingly, my travel journal from that trip has survived the years. The young man (me) wrote: “The Agora left little impression upon me; it once housed such great thoughts as those proclaimed by Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, yet one feels no inclination to think more profoundly because of common ground crossed.”  (I was painfully ponderous even then.)

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Editorial Manifesto:

Socrates stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. I disagree with the fundamental premiss, the notion of a life not worth living; but that’s not the point. Inverted to the positive, Socrates’s admonition might be understood to read: The examined life is (more) worth(y of) living. He did not say, What is the meaning of life?; rather he made a value statement on existence. He did not suggest developing a flow chart, or creating a matrix. There are no three-ring binders with tabs in this project. No Powerpoint. No life coach. He exhorted, in my shorthand, simply: Examine. Accept nothing less than an adequate accounting. It is an open and expansive thought. Conversely, drilled into us from childhood: seek and find, question and answer, open and close. Those are closed equations, for lack of a better phrase. For me, the power of Socrates is the open equation: examine.

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Although I’ve not read it, I understand that I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, is an excellent read if you’re interested in the history.

9781250002327If you are curious to read the thoughts of a working philosopher on the matter of living fully the examined life, I suggest the late Robert Nozick‘s (1938-2002),  The Examined Life, Philosophical Meditations. Along similar lines, but more historical, you might enjoy James Miller’s Examined Lives, From Socrates to Nietzsche. It was a 2011 New York Times Notable Book and is imminently readable.  Lastly, if you wish to urlwade deep into these waters, consider Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations, specifically the last chapter, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.”

Thanks for reading. I hope you found it interesting.

d

Sunday Repost: Foucault

In Life, Philosophy, Thinkers on January 27, 2013 at 6:00 am
Philosopher, Michel Foucault

Philosopher, Michel Foucault

Yesterday I finished James Miller’s overview of French philosopher Michel Foucault, The Passion of Michael Foucault. Miller relates the following story. It is 1975 and Foucault’s career is in full bloom. His reputation is international and he has accepted an invitation to the United States. It is proposed that he visit a Taoist commune at Mount Baldy in Southern California. It is night, there is a fire blazing. The philosopher and his hosts are sitting on the porch of a cabin. From Miller’s book:

One of the young men plaintively remarked that he felt completely lost.

“‘You have to be lost as a young man,’ Wade recalls Foucault replying.

“‘You are not really trying unless you are lost. This is a good sign. I was lost as a young man too.'”

“‘Should I take chances with my life?'” the student asked earnestly.

“‘By all means! Take risks, go out on a limb!’

“‘But I yearn for solutions.’

“‘There are no solutions,’ said the French philosopher firmly.

“Then at least some answers.’

“‘There are no answers!,'” exclaimed Foucault.

Of this we can be uncertain.

In Curiosity, Life, Philosophy, Science, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on January 9, 2013 at 6:00 am

“House” member, kvnpete, put a question to me that, I think, everyone might appreciate. The question, a good one, a big one, warrants a larger canvas than just a “comment.”

Here’s what kvnpete asked (I took the liberty to link a few references mentioned, should one wish to pursue further):

“You mention things like the Geodetic Effect and I am wondering if you ever read anything by Roger Penrose? Besides being in the same class as a Stephen Hawking, his most recent book, The Road to Reality, is a physics book that I think that is supposed to be really worth a look, more philosophical than pure science. Penrose always holds some interesting views on the inflationary universe and the human consciousness that may sometimes be unpopular and unproven but there maybe is something there. I haven’t seen The Road to Reality myself; I understand it is more of a project than anything else, but one worth undertaking. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know the first thing about quantum mechanics except that is two words and not one and I’m not suggesting Penrose is writer that compares to the authors you often mention; but that is apples and oranges. Also quantum mechanics just doesn’t seem to be the most practical topic and maybe more of a religion in the way that it is only discussed by others in the congregation who read the relevant books; but do you think it holds anything that is more than just math equations and physics, and if it does, what is it’s place in all of this? Thanks”

Thanks for the question, kvnpete. Damn, we are a smart and good-looking bunch, aren’t we? The reviewer at The Guardian wrote of Penrose’s bookFile:The_Road_to_Reality (2006), The Road to Reality: “…if you are at all interested in different sizes of infinity, or different dimensions, or quantum particles, the thermodynamic legacy of the Big Bang, then here is chapter and verse, at least until matters are sorted out by a grand unified theory once and for all. You can skate over the equations and let the more comprehensible assertions, or the more stimulating questions, lodge themselves in your mind and assume the character of poetry.” So let’s set Penrose (a Platonist, Penrose has written, “I imagine that whenever the mind perceives a mathematical idea it makes contact with Plato’s world of mathematical concepts.”) and his soon-to-be-procured book aside and get to the meat of the matter, the only mouthful I can attempt to chew–and that is kvnpete’s question, “quantum mechanics…what is its place in all of this?” Great question!

By “all of this” I suspect you’re referring to the big stuff, the universe and our place in it, the meaning and implication of that, and so on. Here’s the little bit I know and what I deem to be the import of that information.

Einstein originally built a fudge-factor into his Theory of Special Relativity. His calculations indicated that the universe was expanding–this was pre-“Big Bang” theory–and he couldn’t accept the fact that the universe was not constant and secure. Later it was demonstrated that, indeed, his initial calculations were correct, that the universe was on the move. In the timeline of things, this was the beginning of the new physics (quantum) and the diminution of the old physics. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton before him, Einstein thought the universe was eternal and unchanging. From the philosophical side of things, Bertrand Russell summed it up: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.” But change was afoot. Feeling the ground shifting under his feet, Einstein famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

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The Uncertainty Principal

Personally, the question settled on me heaviest when I happened upon Heisenberg‘s Uncertainty Principal. I was not alone in this and committed, like so many other lay people, all sorts of intellectual sins as a result of my limited understanding. In summary, Heisenberg (1901-1976) discovered that you cannot simultaneously know the location and the speed of a sub-atomic particle. The big hook here was the notion that observation changes the outcome. You can observe the speed of the particle, but that changes its location. You can observe the location of a particle, but that changes its speed. This is of course, sub-atomic stuff we’re talking about, but to the casual, philosophically-inclined, thinker, this was a very big deal. Imagine: the fashion in which we interact with the world, changes the reality of it. At least that was the simplistic conclusion I came to–I said I commented sins. (Oh, forgive me father, for I have made unwarranted philosophical leaps.)

To continue our journey down the history of an idea: The general sense of things is/was that the old guard was losing the battle to explain the universe, and by implication, our place in it. The new quantum guard was painting a picture of chaos and change at every physical level. Philosophically the foundation was being laid that the quest to find meaning in the universe was, at best, absurd.

“…to hope in the possibility of help, not to speak of help by virtue of the absurd, that for God all things are possible – no, that he will not do. And as for seeking help from any other – no, that he will not do for all the world…” ~ Kierkegaard

File:Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, patron saint of the absurd.

As I’ve said before, I subscribe to Camus‘s notion that one is responsible for creating meaning in existence–it will not come from outside, not from the universe, not from a super-natural being, or a cosmic vibe. (The only cosmic vibe is the repeated echo of the Big Bang. Back in the days of analogue TV, you could tune your television to that fuzzy spot between channels and listen to the resounding pulsing static of the Big Bang.) This position, the place of the absurd, was not conceivable before the modern physicists showed up. It was hinted at–God is Dead, said Nietzsche–but did not carry the weight of physical reality until the math was done.

There is much to be made of all this, and many have gone there to do so–are still going there, even as our understanding of the physical world continues to change.

I find great freedom and energy as a result of this (post-modern) position. (A recent Times Magazine article included this sentence: “[the] atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world.”) Freethinkers everywhere have a legitimate claim, even a responsibility, to make of existence what they can. It will not come from a church, a god, a cosmos, “an other.” We must pray at the altar of the absurd and practice the religion of chaos. We are alone, but for the effort to be otherwise. And it is the effort that counts.

And that, dear kvnpete, is what I make of quantum physic’s place in all of this.” Thanks for the outstanding question.

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So sorry to have carried on like this. If you stayed the course, thank you. If you bailed, I understand. Perhaps next time we can simply talk about dogs and walks in the woods.

Thanks for reading,

D

Gravity Probe B, the wisdom of dogs, and other notions.

In Dogs, Life, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on January 5, 2013 at 6:00 am
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Gravity Probe B

Einstein (1879-1955) was vindicated about seven years ago. That was when Gravity Probe B, one of Nasa’s satellites, confirmed “to a precision of better than 1 per cent the assertion Einstein made 90 years ago – that an object such as the Earth does indeed distort the fabric of space and time.” (NASA) Imagine a tarp stretched tight, suspended with bungee cords; then imagine dropping a basketball on the tarp. The tarp will sag under the ball and eventually it will come to rest in the middle of the tarp. Drop a marble on the tarp and it will speed to the basketball. This is called the Geodetic Effect and is what Einstein predicted happens with space and time. The basketball represents gravity, as a planet might manifest; the sagging tarp the fabric of space-time. Indeed, time and space bend.

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Despite the assertion fronted by certain family members (you know who you are), I do not believe (entirely) that the gravity of my existence bends my environmental reality. But…

As my parents warned, life (read: time) appears to be accelerating. Years come and go–flash, bang, and suddenly another day has passed, a year escaped, a decade expired before I can blink my eyes. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (535 – c. 475 BCE) famously said, “No man [or woman, presumably] ever steps in the same river twice.” His work, On Nature, does not survive, and everything we know about him we glean from fragments mentioned by other philosophers, principally Diogenes and Plato (who gives us the “river” metaphor). We must be thankful for that, at least.

The flow of existence feels (to me) to be bending time. The older I get the more the bend. The basketball seems to rest deeper into the tarp. Have you ever stood in a river when upstream water is released from a dam? I have. You don’t realize the water flow is increasing until the rush of it is hard upon you. That is aging–we are clueless until it’s mid-thigh and rising, our feet searching for traction. (I realize I’m mixing metaphors here, but hang with me a moment more.)

How does one broach this rushing tide? I turn to the lessons of my dogs. The best of them, those most seemingly, most excitedly alive, existed nose to the ground, curiosity aroused, a trot along the line, working the margins of the harvest. A dog lives a life without shadow; it is a being fully aware, running in the brilliant high-noon sun. Humans cast a shadow and we call it consciousness. Like biography it cannot be escaped. It is the ransom that cannot be paid.

The gist: It seems that the less I am aware of things, the faster the flow. Contrariwise, my dogs appear aware of most everything and completely and totally ignorant of  the bending basketball-gravity of existence.

Here are the things I’m not talking about: transcendence, enlightenment, spiritualism, mysticism, metaphysics, immortality, and all the other limp and ill-fitting clothes we’ve donned over the ages. And what I am talking about? I’ll let you know as soon as Lucy wakes from her nap. We’ll discuss it on our walk.